How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smoke

An optimistic take on California’s future.

Gabe Kleinman
8 min readNov 13, 2020
LNU Lightning Complex Fires, just getting started, as viewed from my afternoon run in Helen Putnam Regional Park in Petaluma, CA. Looks like a mushroom cloud, no?

Now that the rain has finally closed the chapter on California’s vicious 2020 fire and smoke season, a little reflection is in order from a longtime resident. Especially as friends and family ask me why I continue to live here.

First, some context. In 2001, I road tripped from Connecticut to California to live the dream. The attitudes were perpetually optimistic, epic nature was accessible year-round, and anyone could build houses anywhere. The magical possibilities were infinite.

Nearly 20 years later, it’s clear the California vision sold to me — and millions of others — was an unsustainable, false bill of goods. A heaping dose of climate change-induced factors soured the contract even further. But I’m not holding a grudge. Because California was meant to burn. Let’s not feign ignorance by the fire and smoke events of the past five years. A quick trip to the metaphorical library could have taught any of us that:

  • “Between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California.” [source]
  • “California was a very smoky place historically [and]…it’s still probably less than what used to be burned before Europeans arrived.” [source]